Utah moves up the rankings on the nation’s education report card; will it stay the same in 2016?
by Nick Jacobs
While Utah moved up the rankings on National Assessment of Education Progress, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Utah who doesn’t think our education system needs improvement. Utah spends less per student on education than any other state. Our test scores for 4th grade math and science are going down. Our classrooms are the biggest in America, and our teachers are paid less per pupil than any other state. But there is one plus: at least it’s not getting worse.
Utah’s move up the rankings was not a result of improved education, but rather the result of the quality of education falling in many other states. However, there is evidence that education is on the rise in Utah. The new and innovative pay-for-success program put forth by Salt Lake County Mayor helped improve the pre-school education for at risk students. Graduation rates for Latino students have increased since 2009. The legislature even increased funding for education last year, though modestly.
Yet for education in Utah to be higher than average, funding has to increase. Funding in Utah has been on the decline ever since a 1996 amendment to the Utah Constitution allowing for state income tax to be used for purposes other than K-12 funding. Before the amendment, all of the state income tax went directly to K-12 funding. According to State Senator Jim Dabakis this “robbed billions of dollars from Utah’s school children.” The next decrease in education came from a flat tax bill in 2006. The legislation allowed billionaires to pay the same income tax rate as a family making $12,200. This change takes “$280 million every year from Utah public school children.” The last large cut to education came in 2008 as a result of the recession rather than legislation.
However, there has been a push to increase education funding over the last few years. In December of 2014, Governor Herbert released a budget proposal that called for a $500 million increase in funding to education, which included a 6.25 percent per-student increase. Governor Herbert and many others hoped this would bring funding back to what it was before the recession. However, lawmakers at last spring’s legislative session only improved a modest increase of 4 percent per student, or about $100 million total. The increase is to be funded mostly by an adjustment to the dormant statewide property tax.
Education will be a big issue at this next year’s legislative session that runs from January 25 to March 11, with 73 education bills already on the docket. Speaking at a breakfast event on November 29, House Speaker Greg Hughes described education “as both the toughest issue and the top issue facing legislators in next year’s general session”. Unfortunately, with elections coming up for many senators and representatives next fall, it is unlikely that funding will increase since an unpopular tax increase would have to follow as a result.
As the legislative session gets closer more and more information is released regarding new programs and improvements. One bill that will be highly debated this spring is a $100 million school-technology program that would give digital devices to students. There are other tech initiatives on the docket as well, such as a Computer Science Initiative for Public School and amendments and provisions to Digital Teaching and Learning.
In addition, there are also calls to improve early education. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that two business organizations, “threw their support on three education bills that would expand full-day kindergarten and public preschool and provide grant funding for teacher-training programs”. Social studies programs may also see changes if a new proposed standard passes which would favor debate and fostering critical thinking skills. Before being voted on though, the draft of new standards will go through a 90-day review period.
While funding per pupil and teacher pay in Utah are still at the bottom of the nation, education is on rise in Utah; and not simply because other states’ quality of education is falling. However, it’s too early to tell what the full effects of last years legislation had. Additionally, we won’t know all of the upcoming changes to education this year until the legislative session ends on March 13. Nevertheless, hopes are that Utah will move up the rankings for a second year straight.